‘It’s about ability, not gender’
- Credit: Archant
A growing number of women are joining the ranks of what was until recently almost an exclusively male industry. Sheena Grant went to meet one of Suffolk’s still small, but increasing, band of female farriers.
Laura Jones is the sort of woman you imagine could easily hold her own in any company, including an almost entirely male workplace.
The straight-talking northerner is down-to-earth, chatty and has a great sense of humour – all qualities that must come in handy when you’re doing a very physical job that has traditionally been the preserve of men.
Laura, now 23, came to Suffolk from her native West Yorkshire as a fresh-faced 17-year-old to pursue her dream of becoming a farrier.
There’s been a 70% increase nationally of women taking up the job in recent years. But of around 80 farriers living in Suffolk only a handful are women. So Laura is something of a trailblazer, even though it’s probably not a word she would ever use to describe herself.
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“I just love the job,” she says, relaxing at home in Great Cornard on her day off.
“I find it endlessly fascinating. There are so many aspects to it. You get to meet lots of different people and horses, do a lot of travelling to different places and then there is all the science of shoeing. No horses are the same.
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“I know that more women have gone into the profession recently but it’s not a factor I ever considered when deciding what I wanted to do. I just wanted to work with horses and anyway, women farriers aren’t that new. In Roman times there were a lot of women doing it as so many men were away fighting in the army.
“These days it may be more of a novelty but there is so much more equality across the board today that I am a firm believer that if you want something badly enough you can do it, whatever it is.”
Laura grew up on a sheep farm but her family always had horses too.
“I got to about 15 and I remember my mum asking me if I’d thought about a career,” she says. “I told her I was going to be a farrier and she said: ‘Of course you are’.
“So began my five-year campaign to prove her wrong. Mum wasn’t against me being a farrier. I think she was just sceptical and told me if I was serious I’d better ring our farrier and find out more. So I did and that was the start of my work experience. I got hooked from then on.”
After doing a pre-farriery course (covering basic horse handling and forge work) Laura arrived in Suffolk in 2007, a week after her 17th birthday, to begin a trial with farrier Bob Rush in Clare. She started her four-year, 2-month apprenticeship soon afterwards and after completing her final exams at the end of 2011 became a qualified farrier, setting up on her own soon afterwards.
She ended up in Suffolk by chance.
“After you’ve done your pre-farriery course you can start applying to accredited training farriers,” she says. “The majority will never even reply to you but if you’re lucky you’ll find one who can take you on trial.
“There are a lot more people after spaces than there are spaces available so I was lucky to find a place with Bob.
“I’m not sure if it’s more difficult as a woman – there are some people who actually prefer women. I know one training farrier who told me girls were more likely to stick at it and persevere. But I know there are others who have different attitudes.
“It goes both ways. All I can say is that almost 50% of my work I have gained because people have found that their horse responded better to a lighter touch.
“Many horse owners are women too and so prefer to have a woman farrier on their yard. I’ve got one client who’s very shy and wouldn’t want a man around for that reason.
“But on the other hand you do get some people who think you are not physically capable because you are woman.
“In the early days when I visited customers for the first time and they didn’t know who was coming they might say: ‘oh, a woman’. But that was usually just because they were surprised rather than anything else.
“I can honestly say I’ve never encountered any hostility as a woman from men in the profession. When I was training everyone would just work together.”
It may be a varied, interesting job but it’s not for the faint-hearted – regardless of your gender.
Farriery training is one of the UK’s oldest surviving apprenticeships and as such, it is long lasting, thorough and at times tough.
“The diploma of the Worshipful Company of Farriers is the highest qualification in the world for farriery and to shoe in the UK that is the minimum you must have by law,” says Laura.
“You’ve got to really want it to get to the end of the training. Twelve-hour days in all weathers, covered in mud, are not unusual. It’s very physical work and you wouldn’t do it for the pay alone – I’ve lived on cuppa soup for long enough. On top of that, you’ve often got to move away from home and ultimately go it alone. It’s a baptism of fire really.”
Then there are the horses. Most are well-behaved but you always find some who just do not like having their feet done or, if they are young, are just not used to it.
“Usually it just involves a bit of psychology – a well-placed hay net or a feed can work wonders at distracting them,” says Laura. “You’ll never win a physical fight with a horse, however big you are, so it’s best not to get yourself into that situation in the first place.”
On top of that you have to spend time in college and learn all about anatomy and how the foot is put together – vital when you think of the damage a badly-placed nail could inflict.
Those who make it to the end of the training get to sit the exam and, if they get through written, practical and oral elements of that, a presentation day in London awaits.
“It’s very traditional and involves saying a prayer to the horse in church,” says Laura, who was lucky enough to win a medal for her training success. “It’s quite moving and fascinating really.”
Her skills include remedial shoeing for horses that have specific medical or conformation problems and being able to make a shoe from scratch if need be, although most of those she uses are bought in as standard sizes and adjusted to fit individual horses.
A year on from qualifying, she’s still in the process of setting up her business and is happy to call Suffolk home for the foreseeable future.
Her patch takes in a wide area that stretches from Bury St Edmunds and Sudbury towards, Braintree and Ipswich. She’s even got a client out on the Suffolk coast and another in Norwich.
These days, most of her horse handling is from the ground and she doesn’t get to ride that often, although some of her customers have tried to tempt her to get into the saddle on one of their animals.
She would like to see more women follow her into the profession but adds: “It shouldn’t really be about gender. As long as the right people are doing the job that’s what matters. I certainly wouldn’t swap it. It’s a great life.”
To contact Laura email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07888 658205.